Sunday, 29 December 2013

Liberal idea #2 - We are Rational Beings

Liberalism grew up within the rationalist school of thought of 17th century Europe. Reason was held to be humanity's most distinctive attribute, the one that most clearly identifies us as human and not simply animals. We can act in accordance with rationally derived plans and principles which override our animal impulses. Liberalism is confident that acting in accordance with reason (and particularly through the rational endeavour of science) humanity can comprehend the world and solve its problems. The history of science, technology, and economics since the birth of Liberalism would offer plenty of support for this hope.

The liberal stands for the authority of reason in all matters. There is no authority which cannot be questioned; no opinion that cannot be challenged; no subject that cannot be examined in the cold light of reason. The authority of reason demands that everything be tested by the standard of reason. There is no custom, prejudice, sentiment or belief that should escape its resolute eye. The authority given to reason endows the liberal with an attitude that is both sceptical and optimistic.

You will no doubt have noticed that this depiction of the liberal attitude is somewhat out of date. Liberalism claims to be a rationalist philosophy, as indeed it originally was. One wishes that it would be more rational now. Liberals today are all too happy to gloss over the irrational in order to maintain "respect" for cultural differences; to make allowances for the "disadvantaged"; to save the foolish from facing the consequences of their folly; to promote dubious research which supports a liberal agenda and to suppress solid research which contradicts it; in short, the end now justifies the means as far as many liberals are concerned. This cynicism is given a gloss of respectability because the liberal is seen to be the advocate of the weak and and the poor. As a consequence, liberalism is mired in double standards, relativism, and logical incoherence. In fact, to insist on greater rationality and logical coherence is, to many liberals, to be something other than liberal.

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